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Massive Cyclone Ravages Myanmar, Tests Government

May 5, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A large cyclone hit the nation of Myanmar Saturday, bringing widespread damage and causing major harm to its citizens, killing upwards of 10,000 people. Relief agencies are rushing to respond, and the event is seen by many as a test of the military junta's ability to direct the relief effort.

GWEN IFILL: We begin tonight with the deadly cyclone in Myanmar, the former Burma.

Judy Woodruff spoke earlier today with Pamela Sitko, a communications manager with World Vision. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Sitko, thank you very much for joining us.

First of all, tell us what you’ve learned about the situation on the ground in Burma.

PAMELA SITKO, Communications Manager, World Vision: Well, I just got off the phone with a team in Yangon City.

Yangon is in complete darkness tonight. Electricity has been cut off for two days. Water supply has come to a halt. And communication lines have been severed, for the most part. So, Yangon has faced some massive destruction because of this cyclone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, that is the largest city in Burma. What are you hearing about the rest of the country?

PAMELA SITKO: Well, World Vision is concerned about the dense populations.

Coastal communities in the Irrawaddy River delta area, we still don’t have communication from them, or very little information coming out from those areas. And, so, it’s still anybody’s guess what’s taking place in those hard-hit areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is your team on the ground giving you a sense of how much of the country has been affected?

PAMELA SITKO: Little by little, bit by bit, roadways start to become cleared. There are people out there volunteering to remove the debris and the large, enormous trees that are scattered across the highways.

Information is starting to come out more. Communication in general has been extremely difficult all around the country. You will notice, by the changing death toll figures, it’s extremely difficult to get information.

Aid groups try to reach people

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this is a government, as we know, a military government, with limited contact with the outside world. What exactly did it ask World Vision to do?

PAMELA SITKO: They have been working, coordinating with World Vision to provide clean drinking water, shelter materials, basic survival kits, such as food, rice, that sort of thing.

World Vision has been working with the Burmese government for more than 30 years through its development programs, providing education programs for children, health and nutrition, that sort of thing. So, this was just another step in an emergency direction. It meant that we needed to coordinate and that we needed to ensure that we met the requests from the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what would you say right now are the greatest needs that the people of Burma have?

PAMELA SITKO: We are looking for clean drinking water. This is on a scale of what we were requesting for during the tsunami, water purification systems. Massive populations of people need access to this drinking water.

And, during times like this, it's the children who are most vulnerable in disasters. Medicines are also of great need as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: World Vision has sponsored, I gather, around 40,000 children around the country. Tell us what you know about their status.

PAMELA SITKO: We have 42,000 children in a sponsorship program.

So, World Vision is concerned about those children right now. Some of them are in the Irrawaddy delta, where we still don't have very much information. And it's very crucial that we get basic survival goods to them.

The other thing is, today, we were distributing water in an area in a school, and World Vision staff were talking to two 10-year-old girls and asking them if they knew the storm was coming. And their response was, yes, we knew the storm was coming, so we ran to our school.

These little girls ran with their sisters. And they said they were both very afraid, but they saw all the other children running to this particular school center, and so they too followed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Sitko, who is with World Vision, talking to us tonight from Bangkok, thank you very much.

PAMELA SITKO: You're welcome.

Laura Bush speaks about cyclone

GWEN IFILL: The situation in Myanmar has been a priority issue for first lady Laura Bush.

She spoke to reporters today in the White House Briefing Room about the disaster there and about the politics on the ground. Last week, the U.S., the European Union and other Western governments stiffened sanctions on Myanmar.

LAURA BUSH: As they cope with this tragedy, the men and women of Burma remain in the thoughts and prayers of many Americans. It's troubling that many of the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, sounded the alarm. Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path.

The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failure to meet its people's basic needs. The regime has dismantled systems of agriculture, education and health care. This once wealthy nation now has the lowest per capita GDP in Southeast Asia.

Despite the havoc created by this weekend's cyclone, as far as we can tell, Burma's military leaders plan to move forward with the constitutional referendum scheduled for this Saturday, May 10. They have orchestrated this vote to give false legitimacy to their continued rule.

In response to the regime's continued repression, President Bush has instructed the U.S. Treasury Department to freeze assets of Burmese state-owned companies that are held in U.S. banks. This adds to actions last year to expand U.S. sanctions against Burma's regime and to tighten sanctions against its top leaders.

We thank the European Union, Canada and Australia for joining the United States in imposing similar restrictions, and we appeal to China, India, and Burma's fellow ASEAN members to use their influence to encourage a democratic transition.

Burma's ruling generals have had their chance to implement the good government they promised to their people. If it proceeds under current conditions, the constitutional referendum they have planned should not be seen as a step toward freedom, but rather as a confirmation of the unacceptable status quo.

Aid offered for relief work

QUESTION: And given your concerns about the ruling government there, are you also worried that any U.S. aid might not get to the people affected?

LAURA BUSH: Well, I'm worried that they won't even accept U.S. aid. And I urge the government to accept aid from the United States and from the entire international community right now while the needs of their people are so critical.

QUESTION: Mrs. Bush, is there any evidence that the sanctions the U.S. and other nations have imposed on the leaders in Myanmar or Burma have had an effect?

LAURA BUSH: Only anecdotal. We have heard -- and not probably -- can't really confirm about some of the leaders who are targeted -- actions that they have taken that make us think they don't like those targeted sanctions on the leaders themselves.

QUESTION: Madam, do you have any strong message for the dictatorship -- the military dictatorship in Burma -- as far as this democracy and this cyclone is concerned? And do you think they will have a change of heart and minds because of this tragedy?

LAURA BUSH: I hope so. I hope that there will be one good thing that comes out of such huge destruction, and that would be the government's realization that the people of Burma need help and they need more help than they can give them or that they have been able to give them.

And the country has just been totally decimated with both education, agriculture, all of the things that makes -- made Burma one of the richest countries in Asia have now been dismantled.

And it's very, very important that the regime start to accept both technical help from out of the country and, obviously, in this sort of disaster, very -- be able to accept the really basic help that anybody would need, any country would need and any people would need after this kind of disaster.

QUESTION: This is a first, for a first lady to come to this podium and talk about a cyclone. Why such a historic interest?

LAURA BUSH: Well, you know I have been interested in Burma for a long time. It started, really, with an interest in Aung San Suu Kyi and reading her works, and just this story of a Nobel Prize winner who's been under house arrest for so long, whose party was overwhelmingly elected in an election and then never able to take office.

And so it started with an interest in her. And then, just the more I have seen, the more critical I see the need is for the people in Burma to be -- for the world to pay attention to the people of Burma, and for the world to put pressure on the military regime.